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Xi Jinping in San Francisco: “China is ready to be a partner and friend of the United States" — starting with climate

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By Arvea Marieni

· 6 min read

“President Biden stated that the United States stands ready to work together with the PRC to address transnational challenges, such as health security and debt and climate finance in developing countries and emerging markets.” (source

"Sunnylands Statement on Enhancing Cooperation to Address the Climate Crisis"

The "Sunnylands Statement on Enhancing Cooperation to Address the Climate Crisis", officially released on 15 November, is the result of four days of intense discussions between the US President's Special Envoy on Climate Change, John Kerry, and his counterpart, former Minister Xie Zhenhua. The US and China together account for 42% of global emissions.

As they do every year before the COP, the two envoys took stock of the situation before the negotiations. Both are aware that the structure of the COP is probably not suited to taking the urgent, necessary, and radical decisions for what John Kerry now unhesitatingly calls a “war economy”. If concrete action is needed today, it can only be taken at the level of states and industries, mobilising the industrial, economic, technological, and operational potential of national economies. On several occasions, both in public and in private, Kerry has spoken of the US industrial effort during the Second World War, mentioning those the 'engineers of victory' who enabled the transformation of the national economy to the pursuit of war aims. The 'Liberty Ships' and B-24 bombers of the climate war, according to Kerry, are renewable energies, which must be tripled by 2030. Leadership is needed, Kerry reminds us, and swift decision-making.

A tested method

But that is the job of presidents and prime ministers. To return to their work, Kerry and Xie have a tried and tested model. It is based on dialogue processes of formal and sub-national diplomacy, on technical, scientific and industrial working groups that delve into issues and prepare for broader political agreements. At Sunnylands, for example, a working group on "Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s" is operational. The playbook for this is the earlier 'US-China Working Group on Climate Change', set up by the two men in 2013, which paved the way for the Paris Agreement. Significantly, the group has remained dormant under Trump, though it has not been disbanded.

From this perspective, California Governor Gavin Newsom's visit to China in October is one of the building blocks of this journey and has produced results in strengthening technology transfer programmes and processes that have been in place for more than fifteen years. Newsom was the first US governor to visit China in four years.

Technology cooperation and transfer covers key sectors where the two nations can move faster together: mobility, automotive, solar, wind and battery installation. Despite rising geopolitical tensions between the two countries over the past five years, "Divorce is not an option... It serves no one”, Newsom declared.

The US and China bear a shared responsibility for the climate crisis

Both countries now implicitly recognise that the dynamic of economic interdependence and geopolitical competition, a cornerstone of the US strategy for globalising the world economy since the 1970s, has led to planetary disorder as production systems have crossed 'planetary boundaries'. The solution to the crisis is not only technological but requires working to harness the power and resilience of nature. That is why the Sunnylands Statement integrates adaptation, the enhancement of natural carbon sinks, the reduction of certain classes of pollutants, the global challenge of plastics, the fight against deforestation and the circular economy. 

Together, the economic systems of the two major world powers, operating within the high resource- and consumption-intensive model of US-led globalisation, have produced disruptive effects that threaten the habitability of the planet itself. 

The global impact of this "great acceleration" is being felt in every dimension of the Earth's systems, in climate, in the onset of a new mass extinction, and in the biodiversity and water crisis. 

By turning China into the 'factory of the world', 'offshoring' production, emissions and pollution to take advantage of China's extremely low wages, Western corporations financed and implemented the second phase of China's industrial revolution. The immense economic development that followed was accompanied by a policy of systematic Chinese purchases of US Treasury bonds, which rose from 5% in 1990 to more than 20% in 2018 ($1.3 trillion in loans). In this way, China has financed the growth of US consumption.

This dynamic is reflected in the increase in emissions. In the same years, the US emitted between 5 and 6 billion tonnes of CO2 per year, while China's annual emissions rose from 2.4 billion tonnes in 1990 to almost 10 billion tonnes in 2017. China has thus become the world's largest emitter. emissions - some from third parties. 

Cooperation and competition

But this economic and financial interdependence is also underpinned by deep geopolitical and strategic tensions. Washington wants to force Beijing to reduce its trade deficit and its growing geo-economic and political influence. The US does not want to lose its position as the world's leading strategic power.

China, for its part, is undergoing a unique strategic transformation, expanding its pool of resources to the entire world through the New Silk Road policy and radically reorganising its domestic market and urban fabric by changing its relationship with the natural environment. The aim is to mitigate the ecological, agricultural, health, social, economic and political consequences of the catastrophic environmental degradation experienced since the 1950s by devising a new economic model, the newly constituted ecological civilisation, based on both the Confucian tradition and the technocratic governance of the state.

American optimism emphasises the reality of human nature, driven by the desire for wealth, and aims to mobilise the constructive energies of economic and financial systems to solve planetary challenges. "People are rejecting the transition," says Kerry. The solution is not to stop the economy, because we will not succeed. But to create a system of incentives so that it will change. President Biden's IRA is part of that mechanism. Because it is based on tax credits, it is virtually inexhaustible. If you have an idea that works, you can get tax credits, says Kerry.

The Dubai COP will be the last for China's special climate envoy, whose career, which began in the 1980s, has marked all stages of Chinese environmental and climate policy. 

Xie and John Kerry have known each other for 25 years. I think they both would like to go out with a bang.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Arvea Marieni is the Director of the Regenerative Society Foundation, the leading alliance for a regenerative economy. She is also member of the board and Partner at Brainscapital Benefit Company and a Principal Consultant at GcM Consulting Srl. Previously, she was Head of the Energy Transition Programme at the Strasbourg Policy Centre.

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